England 28 South Africa 31: Five talking points from Twickenham
Joel Durston examines some of the talking points as England fall to their fifth straight loss at Twickenham
Another case of so near, yet so far
There will be a lot of soul-searching among Stuart Lancaster’s men over the next few days, following their fifth straight loss – and their 12th game without a win against South Africa (there was one 12-12 draw in June 2012). They can take heart – at least some – from the scoreline, the character of the performance and the fact that that this is a maturing side, with just 372 caps in total coming into this game compared to South Africa’s 673 – ten less than Lancaster has targeted for this team when the World Cup rolls around next year. But this will still hurt a lot. Certainly no one could accuse England of lacking effort, as the bruises from South Africa’s towering forwards will attest, but at the moment they are lacking the coup de grace; gamewinners of yesteryear such as Dallaglio, Wilkinson, Johnson or Robinson. There was a telling statistic from the first half – that England had 64% of possession and 73 per cent of territory – yet still went in at half time 6-13 down. A lot of this is down to England’s play in the middle of the park…
England’s mediocre midfield
Injuries, notably to Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell, have plagued England in the Autumn Internationals, and it showed in their performance here. Here, Billy Vunipola was a forceful presence, probably making the most ground over the gain-line, but he was not particularly creative, nor was Brad Barritt, for all his industry. Kyle Eastmond showed promise but in fits and starts. This is perhaps a bit harsh, because naturally, with many players fairly new to the team, there is not a lot of the cohesion needed for the fluid running moves which typify truly world-class teams. The dilemma for Lancaster will be whether to stick with roughly the same team in the run-up to the world cup, hoping to bed the players into a routine, or give chances to those eager to prove they are match-winners.
Following their surprise 29-15 defeat to Ireland last weekend, the words of Sir Ian McGeechan, talking to his British and Irish Lions team after a 25-16 first Test defeat of South Africa in 1997, proved prescient here. “Beware the wounded Springbok,” he said, sagely. “Like any wounded animal, it will come back at you in frenzy.” And so it proved in the first half, as a huge rolling maul from the ‘Green Machine’ frontline earnt them a 30-yard penalty, which Patrick Lambie kicked over for the first points of the game. The South African pack also earned several crucial turnovers in their own 22, when England were putting them under the cosh, drove England back a good five to ten metres on numerous occasions and brought about the match-winning third try – a classic Springbok barrage to which the England defence eventually succumbed. Also, England conceded several penalties at the breakdown – to some extent through their own indiscipline, to be sure, but also due to the intense pressure applied by the man mountains they faced.
England give South Africa a taste of their own medicine…briefly
That said, England’s pack were not steamrollered – and at times dominated the South Africa frontline. Stuart Lancaster obviously had some stern words in the dressing room as England came out a different team after the break, and forced two tries through sheer brutality. In the second, a rolling maul pushed South Africa back a full 20 metres, well into their 22, from where the ball was spun off and David Wilson went under near the posts. However, South Africa exerted control again after this, and used their experience to see the game out.
A case for change?
Danny Care and Owen Farrell were, respectively, replaced by Ben Youngs and George Ford on the hour mark and there was a real injection of pace into the game. To be sure, some of that was down to England, frankly, being desperate, but much of it was down to the attacking threat posed by the young substitutes. This is not to overly downplay the involvement of Care and Farrell – strong, experienced performers, even if Farrell was under par today – but it presents an interesting selection dilemma for Lancaster.